I’ve been an intern at the Museum at Eldridge Street in the Eldridge Street Synagogue for a few months now. It’s been a fantastic experience so far. I love to walk through the main sanctuary to see how the light dances across the stained glass windows and how hauntingly beautiful it looks each time I see it. The sight never gets old.
During my time here, the Museum opened a new temporary exhibit, Lost Synagogue of Europe: Postcards from the Collection of Frantisek Banyai on view March 16 through September 8. The majority of the featured postcards show the different synagogues of Europe, many destroyed during the Holocaust. As beautiful and devastating as these pictures are, they are not the images I think of today on National Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Today, I think of a subset of images within the exhibit. They are fewer in number and far less striking. And yet I cannot un-see them today. They are the pictures of the Jews of Europe themselves.
Postcards of People
One postcard in particular caught my eye when I first saw the exhibit. It is a photograph of a Jewish man dressed in a prayer shawl and phylacteries (the small leather black boxes Jews wear for weekday prayers). The man has a long beard with gray streaks. He wears glasses. He holds open a prayer book and stands in front of a wall looking straight at the camera. The description next to the picture says; “Morning Prayer, Published by E. Schiller Czernowitz, Chernivsto, Ukraine, Around 1900.”
I first felt embarrassment when looking at this image. Are Jews so different that someone took a picture to highlight it? I imagined someone sending this image to their friends as if to say, “Look what I saw on my vacation!” The postcard highlighted to me something that I have never been able to experience first-hand, how the Jews were seen as “others” in a pre-Holocaust world.
Hitler played on just those feelings – the idea that Jews are different. Today, sitting in the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s beautiful sanctuary, I feel blessed by our culture and history – blessed by our differences. But leading up to and during World War II, it is just these differences that were exploited toward a terrible end.
The exhibition features other images: Jews walking to prayer, children playing, men talking, the Kohanim (Jewish priests) blessing the congregation. A father in a streimel (fur hat) and bekeshe (long black coat) walks with his young sons in Warsaw in 1930.
One postcards shows a Chanukat HaTorah, a ceremony celebrating the completion of a new Torah Scroll by carrying it through the streets to the synagogue. The postcard depicting that celebration was mailed in Trenclanske Teplice, now a region of the Czech Republic, on September 28th, 1934. How soon after would their synagogue be destroyed? The Torah scroll burned? Members of the congregation murdered?
The Jews in many of those pictures were likely killed without a trace. Yet here they are, preserved on our wall, in these postcards.
I Am a Survivor Too
I think of a story about former New York City Mayor Ed Koch. Koch, born and raised in Brooklyn, was a famously proud New Yorker and Jew. When he passed away, Israel’s former Chief Rabbi and the youngest survivor of Buchenwald, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau recounted a story about him.
Rabbi Lau was in New York visiting his brother and Ed Koch asked to meet him. When Koch walked in, he said “I, I am a survivor too.” Rabbi Lau was confused. Koch explained. He had been to Germany a few years previously. While there, he met with officials from Berlin who showed him some artifacts.
One in particular stuck out to Koch.
It was a globe.
On that globe, Hitler ordered his assistants to determine the number of Jews in every city, in every country. Scribbled on the United States of America: 6,000,000.
Koch felt a sense of unity and a belonging with his Jewish brethren who had suffered. He did not think that, just because he was in America, the Holocaust did not relate to him.
I think back to the haunting pictures on the wall, here in our museum on the Lower East Side. The Eldridge Street Synagogue and most of its congregants were not in immediate danger during World War II. Here, in the United States, they were an ocean away. But that doesn’t mean their hearts and minds weren’t with their brothers and sisters, mother and fathers, who they had left behind.
Those individuals, their lives, their pictures, they are still here.
By Rachel Hoffman, Museum at Eldridge Street Intern